Film Review – The Forest (2016)
In Jason Zada‘s The Forest, a young woman named Sara receives a premonition that something bad has happened to her twin sister who is living overseas. As one twin can sense the emotions of the other twin, Sara immediately sets out to find her sister, Jess. Apparently, Sara has the level head; the other one is the flighty, overly passionate malcontent. Conveniently disregarding multiple decades of experience with this sort of behavior, Sara pursues her sibling into a Japanese forest where plot lines go to die.
Natalie Dormer has proven in The Tudors and Game of Thrones that her characters are anything but doormats in matters of the heart, which is why Sara is such a disconcerting role for her to play as it never quite fits. Sara is stubborn enough to travel to Japan alone – against the advice of her boyfriend, Rob (Eoin Macken) – to investigate what local police have chalked up to a suicide, sensible enough to detect when she’s being played, but not discerning enough to avoid obviously bad or foolish situations. Once she gets to Japan, she encounters locals of the Temple of Doom persuasion: overly superstitious, speaking in hushed tones, serving live seafood, and offering little assistance concerning Aokigahara Forest where Jess was last seen while on a field trip to Mount Fuji with her students. By all accounts, the book is closed on Jess’s case despite her body not being recovered, yet her colleagues have preserved her room because of “privacy.”
Sara journeys to the forest where she meets a strapping young travel writer named Aiden (Taylor Kinney) who agrees to accompany her through the forest in exchange for using her story in his magazine – because searching for a possibly suicidal loved one in a creepy forest strewn with bodies is the ultimate extreme travel adventure that must be advertised. Aiden knows a local ranger, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who can guide them, though Michi’s pained expression is one of balancing their assumptions of him as a local with the increasing desire to direct them towards some random path and sneaking back to town.
Along the way, the trio encounters people standing aimlessly, traces of old and new campsites, and a body hanging from a tree. Cut it down, Michi instructs, and leave a note so other rangers can retrieve body. Apparently, any death in Aokigahara is by suicide, and no attempt is made to treat the body as part of a crime scene: simply lean it against a tree and carry on.
By this point of the film, any of the genuinely creepy camerawork of Mattias Troelstrup in the corridor of the forest inn or the claustrophobic atmosphere of the forest itself is supplanted by the ludicrous behavior of the characters within those surroundings. Trudging through the forest without calling out for Jess until her tent is found (helpful local tip: “If you bring a tent, you’re not sure.”). The Americans want to stay the night at Jess’s camp; Michi refuses, as the forest plays tricks on the mind the longer one stays in it. I’m still confused as to why it took three people one day to find the camp, but when Jess first disappeared there was little or no investigation despite it being relatively easy to locate where she had gone.
As Sara and Aiden wait for Jess to return, the forest pulls out its tricks and tries to turn them against each other, sustaining Sara’s belief in her sister being alive by the spectre – or existence – of a Japanese schoolgirl giving clues before disappearing into the trees. The tropes of the survivalist thriller arrive on schedule: ghostly hands tapping on the tent at night, a character falling into a hole and deciding to investigate a tunnel, an isolated cabin. While Kinney exudes a natural charm and Dormer’s piercing eyes discern insincerity in her escort’s graces, it is nearly impossible to have any real sympathy for two characters so inept at the task at hand. By the time the film reaches its ridiculous ending, it has stretched our disbelief to the point of failing to see the point for the trees.